Ric Roman Waugh goes to “Greenland” | Daily News

Ric Roman Waugh goes to “Greenland”

In Greenland (2020), released just a month ago, Jake Garrity (Gerard Butler) receives a call from the US Department of Homeland Security informing him that he and his family – his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and his son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) – have been selected to a flight to an undisclosed shelter. Just why there’s a shelter, and why there had been no preparatory warning about it, we don’t know. Neither does Jake, a structural engineer going through a separation from his wife. The signs in the sky are ominous: moments earlier he’d seen a fleet of US Air Force craft. The signs closer to home are as ominous: the sight of tanks swarming through the neighbourhood disturbs him. What’s going on?

The only connection he can make is to a comet that’s predicted to make landfall somewhere in Bermuda, but Bermuda’s over 1,500 kilometres from where he lives in Atlanta, Georgia. The comet (funnily enough named “Clarke”) is the size of a football. Jake’s son is excited, as are his neighbours, who gather around the TV in the Garrity sitting room. Jake returns home in time for the deep impact. The reporters are excited, and they make the countdown. But the countdown ends, and there’s no landfall. Everyone’s confused.

Just then mild tremors rock the house. Jake, remembering the call, runs out to his yard; he sees a swarm of birds rushing away. Pensive, confused, he turns just as a shock wave throws him off guard and rattles the windows. It’s not an earthquake.

Disaster flick

Seeing how the events of Greenland unfold from there onward, you realise how you’ve been cheated by every other end-of-world disaster flick. It boasts of a modest budget; you don’t get to see asteroids pummelling the world like you would in a Michael Bay (Armageddon, 1998) movie. Indeed the beauty of Greenland is that it makes very clear to us early on that the characters have no control over what’s happening. Like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), the plot relates everything through the perspective of a family – the holy trinity of father, mother, and son – trying to get together to escape to safety. There’s no real heroism at work here, unless you can count a father’s desperation as heroism.

If in Armageddon all those scenes of asteroids hitting New York, Shanghai, and Paris seem a trifle manipulative, it’s because they seem as though controlled by some higher entity, some higher power fed up with humanity (the very title brings up Biblical connotations). Nothing of the sort in Greenland: no doubt due to budgetary constraints, the comet fragments and their devastating impacts are seen in bits and pieces. This would ordinarily bore audiences used to preposterous end-of-world CGI eye-candy – except that it doesn’t here.

Because the fragments are seen in cameo, and because they don’t force the characters into the background, whenever they pop up they unnerve us. The Garritys witness three impacts before the final impact; one of them turns out to be a series of fragmentary fireballs hitting the interstate highway. The film gets some convincing thrills in particular from the latter: as drivers desperately try to escape the fiery deluge, the camera turns to the sky, revealing an almost Dantesque conflagration. It’s hell in reverse, and it’s truly terrifying. If the ending is, as a friend of mine told me, disappointing in that it’s too brief, it’s because this is no Roland Emmerich (2012, 2009) mash-up epic where the hero emerges from the dark to ponder the future. This is the end of the world we’ve been waiting for. The director, Ric Roman Waugh, is a relative newcomer, but it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.

Thrilling sequence

Technical assistants don’t make a happy journey to the director’s seat. Geostorm (2017) is a case in point: Dean Devlin worked as Roland Emmerich’s scriptwriter on five of his movies before deciding to make a flick of his own based on one he didn’t get to collaborate in with Emmerich. Geostorm has faint echoes of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), though there at times when those echoes tend to deafen. Its excesses are part of its charm, yet at the end of the day, the only really thrilling sequence is a car chase with the two protagonists and the president which could just as easily have come from a detective thriller. The natural disaster sequences are hilarious if farcical: you wonder what the producers were thinking when they committed 120 million dollars to this DeMillean Grand Guignol. Greenland ran on a third of that amount, yet the suspense, the drama, the affirmation of humanity, is there in a way it’s not in Geostorm – or for that matter in parts of The Day After Tomorrow.

I say this because Roman Waugh, like Dean Devlin, also graduated from behind the scenes to behind the camera. But whereas Devlin wrote scripts, Waugh did stunts. In the history of movies there have been many, many writers who’ve ended up as directors, but I can’t think of a single stuntman who made that transition. IMBD.com lists down Burt Reynolds, but the late Burt was more an actor than a stuntman, and we’ve had our fair share of actors who’ve made it to the director’s chair. Waugh’s case, then, is interesting, certainly more interesting than Devlin’s or for that matter Jan de Bont’s (Speed, 1994, and Twister, 1996), because you normally don’t associate the mechanics of stunt-doubling with the nuances of moviemaking. How do you couple the two? How do you turn from the one to the other?

A clue, of some sort, lurks beneath the narrative of In the Shadows (2001), Waugh’s debut as a director. The hit-man at the heart of the story, the “killer with a heart”, is hired by the mob to kill a stunt coordinator. To do that, the hired gun (played by Matthew Modine) has to first enter the coordinator’s world, as a stuntman. Since no Hollywood eye-fest featuring an assassin would be complete without the assassin falling in love with the daughter of the guy he’s ordered to finish off, the hit-man finds himself dithering over his assignment owing to his romantic illusions. The ending, which I will not spoil for you, reaches its climax when the hired gun finds himself drawn inexorably to the role he’s been playing all this while. The hit-man has turned into stuntman. I know it’s a stretch to extend the analogy to a director, but watching In the Shadows again, I’m struck by the comparison: like the hero turning from guns to stunts, Waugh has turned from stunt-doubling to movie-directing.

Fight scenes

To be sure, the transition hasn’t exactly been smooth. Looking at Waugh’s credits, I realise he’s been scoring mild hits for the most. Felon (2008) and Snitch (2013) both scored below 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. The devil, however, is in the detail. Critics were not too excited about the action sequences in these films, surprisingly for a stuntman-turned-director, but they were happy with the performances. Here, I think, is Waugh’s biggest strength: unlike most directors who graduate from the ranks of technical assistants the man seems to have an eye for acting as opposed to action. Some of the action sequences in Felon and especially in Snitch are well choreographed. But this is mainstream Hollywood: even Geostorm, with its awful storyline, has well choreographed fight scenes. A good performance is hard to get and harder to make than a good tussle. Waugh gives us both.

Snitch intrigues me particularly. Dwayne Johnson may be the world’s highest paid actor (at 87 million dollars, between 2019 and 2020, he surpasses even Charlie Chaplin’s and Mary Pickford’s earnings at the height of their careers), but he’s far from being a Marlon Brando. Not that he hasn’t tried or won’t try if given a chance. But directors HAVEN’T given him the chance; that’s why outings like Race to Witch Mountain (2009), Tooth Fairy (2010), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), San Andreas (2015), and Rampage (2018) are so bland, if not maddening. You know you can get more from this hulking mass of brawn and brain, and you know you can cast him against type. Paul Feig did that with Jason Statham in Spy (2015); Waugh did the same with “The Rock” two years earlier, with Snitch.

I feel Waugh has an innate ability – call it “gift” – to transform actors effortlessly. Johnson has, ever since Snitch, gone on to prosper in more serious roles: while he’s had his share of brawns-only outings (Hercules, 2014 and Skyscraper, 2018) , he’s had his cast-against-type credits too; more so than Statham, who can only conjure up facetiousness and self-mockery (how else can you describe his performance in Spy?), Dwayne’s easygoing charm and folksy voice make him amenable to comedy, as Central Intelligence (2015) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) clearly show. I can’t think of a single instance before Snitch where this happened. The difference with Snitch, of course, is that it doesn’t try to divert “The Rock” into comedy: what it does is nothing less than redeem his dramatic potential.

In Greenland, Waugh has turned his attention to yet another underrated action star (albeit one with greater thespian prowess than Johnson), Gerard Butler. Butler, like John Cusack, is not just underrated, but underused. In the hands of a great enough director – Woody Allen and Gary Fleder – Cusack will give his best. But like Butler and Johnson, he’s never had the chance; he’s simply never been given enough.

The contrast between Cusack and Butler comes out when you compare Roland Emmerich’s 2012 with Waugh’s Greenland. Both are, in a way, similar, yet watch how Emmerich handles Cusack – a blubbering version of himself – and how Waugh handles Butler – an empathetic, solid version of himself – and you’ll see why actors need directors who understand, then get into, their potentials. Emmerich started out in special effects; Waugh started out in stunt-work. I’ll leave you to decide which of these two brings you closer to cast members. Here’s a hint: certainly not the field that supervises mindless CGI.